Every so often we meet with a familiar part of our environment which we suppose has some personal attachment for us as individuals. Over the next year I am hoping to share some of my familiars. I can’t say why a flower, for example, rings the same bell as sharing a sentiment with another human being. It does, however, and one of those words which conjures up images from across my own span is “yarrow”. We can never be sure how far back our associations go but my earliest memory of yarrow takes me to a dusty lane on the edge of a Lincolnshire village. We lived in an old cottage – no hot water, no bathroom – the loo was in the yard, only a coal fire for warmth. We had to put pegged rugs from the floor onto our beds in the coldest winters and, as my own bedroom was, in effect, over a barn, I moved in with my younger brother when the cold was keen.
But the summers were long and blissful – mostly. There was nothing to stop me from wandering the lanes and hedgerows around our home. No traffic, except the occasional wooden farm cart, adapted so that it might be pulled by a chugging grey tractor instead of the traditional cart horse, sadly gone before my time. Neither was there the same fear, as now, of abduction.
Along the lanes of my childhood grew the strong smelling yarrow. It has been respected for thousands of years because of its property as a stem to bleeding. The French call it “herbe aux charpentiers” as it is said to cure all wounds caused by sharp edged tools. It is believed that Achilles used it for his soldiers’ wounds in the Trojan War. The First Nations of America used it for the same reason.
Sometimes yarrow is referred to as “milfoil” – which means “a thousand leaves”. I suppose this is because its leaves are divided into tiny segments. It grows about thirty centimetres in height, sometimes it grows taller, and is usually white but there is a pink variation too. The plant comes year after year and will often flower late into the autumn if the conditions are right.
It is such a pretty feathery plant and I love it still as I did when I would cup my hands around it as a child. There are some odd sayings associated with yarrow. One of the less romantic is the old Suffolk rhyme:
Green yarrow, green yarrow, you bears a white blow,
If my love loves me, my nose will bleed now!
If yarrow was put into the nose, it would cause it to bleed and it was believed that relief from migraine might be obtained in this way.
Dusty summers in our lanes changed the rich green leaves into grey-green lace which amply framed the tiny white florets. The Irish believed that good luck would ensue if the yarrow was sewn into clothing and cushions were filled with it in the eastern counties of England. Even in the last century, yarrow was still believed to prevent the efficacy of spells and to be itself a charm against sickness. It was a strong growing, reliable friend of a flower to this little girl – not something that would wilt in the heat or be dashed to the ground in the rain. I would nod to it when I went for country walks with my granny and, later, as I grew, I rejoiced when I noticed it continuing to bloom when all the other flowers had shut up shop for the year. It is an always flower. It crops up everywhere and just about any time. And yet it continues to delight me.
When my little boy became a naturalist, at a very young age, yarrow was one of the first plants whose properties he knew by heart. I think the reference to Achilles held a fascination for a small boy – Achillea millefolium is a noble name by any standard.
Years of yarrows marched on like the army of Achilles and, in the garden of another cottage, we set out to grow the pink yarrow. The first time it flowered, it was obviously pink. The next year the flowers were paler – then, the following year, no flowers at all. I made up my mind that white was right for yarrow and, if a plant should issue pink flowers, well, that would be pleasant but I would wait and see what turns up.
More recently I have discovered other yarrows and, although beautiful and often quite rare wildflowers grow there beside Achillea millefolium,the “thousand leaf”, with its burgeoning greenery, is there to lift my heart yet. This other “Yarrows” is an area of moorland, often very wet underfoot in places, between Wick and Lybster. It is just a wee drive from our present home and a fascinating walk, taking you first past a broch, previously a defensive tower dating from 200BC to 200AD. The walls of the broch are hollow and contained a small guard cell to protect the entrance as well as stairs to the upper storeys. The broch is partly flooded because the level of “Loch of Yarrows” has been raised artificially. The area in and around the broch is peppered with wildflowers according to the season. Walking along the archaeological trail towards some hut circles you will see yarrow – Achilles’ helpful herb – growing where it is able. The walk begins at South Yarrows Farm and takes in, as well as the broch and faint hut circles, several burial cairns, the remains of the ramparts of an Iron Age hill fort and wide views across much of Caithness.
The name of this latter “Yarrow” does not refer to the plant, however, although it does grow in places along the trail. It actually comes from “yar – howe”, in the Norse, which means ” mound of the fish traps”. I really don’t mind. Yarrow is, to me, a familiar which has bloomed alongside me through all the years of my life. Now I have found another yarrow – an interesting ruin – now that’s familiar.